How I Discovered a New Side of
For me, the Bahamas used to conjure images of a teen-spirit beach vacation: neon bikinis, potent rum runners, over-chlorinated megaresorts and the like. My expectations had been set by bus-stop posters of beachgoers rolling around in sand, or giddily gambling inside a cavernous casino. I didn’t anticipate being impressed. But that was before I laid eyes on The Ocean Club, A Four Seasons Resort, Bahamas.
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Flying into the Nassau airport, I’m struck by the bright turquoise waters encircling the archipelago, the sun reflecting off sandy shallows. From the capital, it’s a breezy 30-minute drive across Nassau’s harbour and over the Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge to the north side of Paradise Island. As I step out of the van, my luggage is discreetly handled for me, and I’m welcomed by the scent of hibiscus flowers, waves of salty ocean air and a cool glass of Champagne.
This is the famed Ocean Club, a private estate–style resort embracing 35 acres of landscaped gardens, pools, guest rooms and villas all overlooking an 8-kilometre (5-mile) stretch of powdery white beach. Since its opening in 1962, the property has matured into an elegant enclave for fine art, Bahamian culture and innovative cuisine.
Standing inside the lobby with its vaulted ceiling and polished marble floors, I realize my previous notions were misguided. Here, a few takeaways from my voyage of discovery.
Get to Know Your Butler
Given the expansive grounds, getting to my room entails following a meandering stone path dotted with tropical palms, their fronds swaying beneath the night sky. A few feet away, ocean waves crash onto what feels like my very own crescent-moon slip of beach. I ascend one flight of stairs and open the heavy mahogany door to my suite. My first thought? Please don’t make me go back to New York.
The stately king-size bed is flanked by pale yellow walls; floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto a private balcony with an exquisite ocean view. A giant oval bathtub stocked with Jardin Sur Le Nil toiletries by Hermès is a welcome surprise. This feels like a place to fall in love.
Of course, I’m flying solo. That never stopped James Bond, I say to myself, remembering scenes from Casino Royale, which was filmed here, and staring at the shiny silver cocktail set on my desk. It has all the necessary ingredients for a gin-based stinger the locals call “Sky Juice.” I’d like to make it perfectly, so I call my Bahamian butler. Butlers are on call 24 hours a day at The Ocean Club, rendering services such as luggage packing and unpacking, laundry pressing and the delivery of Champagne and strawberries nightly.
In my case, David, a born-and-raised Nassuvian, arrives with a broad, friendly smile and asks how he might be of service. He’s a great fan of Sky Juice and is genuinely pleased to school me: Combine 2 ounces London Dry Gin, 1 1/2 ounces sweetened condensed milk and coconut water into a shaker; mix, and then pour into a tumbler filled with ice. Just like that I have my first island cocktail (that’s essentially an adult milkshake). Already, this is fun.
Commission Fine Art
By the next afternoon, I’ve let the natural rhythm of this place sink in, swapping my smartphone for the strength of the sun to tell me it’s time to go inside. When I do, I stop to admire a particularly striking painting that depicts tiny figures gathering to form the words “carpe diem.” It’s part of Gatherings, a signature series painted by Jane Waterous, an artist whose work captures the sheer joy of being alive.
A Canadian expat known for her eccentric clothes and outsized optimism, Waterous is the Resort’s artist-in-residence, from whom guests can commission original pieces to take home with them. This is not a typical hospitality offering, so I’ve come to get a closer look. Luckily, Waterous regularly welcomes Ocean Club guests into her private home and art studio, where she and her husband of 25 years permanently reside. Tonight they’re hosting a pre-holiday dinner party, and it’s here I discover that the cheerful energy in her paintings is an extension of the artist herself. Nearly every available wall in this eight-room island estate is covered with art.
“Gatherings is what I’ve been working on for 50-plus years. It’s part of my soul,” Waterous says. “For many years, I just sketched these figures who are communicating, celebrating or playing with each other. They express our capacity for joy – to create it and to share it. I love it when people enjoy themselves.”
To her point, there is a 3.5-metre pink flamingo float outside in the pool and a small army of caterers keeping glasses full. Oh, and everyone has received their own elf hat, complete with jingle bells.
On one wall, I notice two sizeable paintings that spell out “Lady Gaga.” On another, a giant butterfly oversees dinner preparations – we’re having spiced pumpkin soup, filet mignon with roasted vegetables and, for dessert, a kiwi passion fruit meringue. The after-dinner drinks and merriment portion of the evening, involving holiday-themed charades and sumo wrestler costumes, takes place in the living room, where a massive ceramic pig holds court in front of another of Waterous’ celebrated series. Into the Blue, with its depictions of children jumping into the sea with abandon, feels right at home here.
Become a Rum Connoisseur
Spend enough evenings at Ocean Club and you’ll soon learn the difference between a fine sipping rum and what occupies the bottom shelf. Having taste-tested the best Bahamian rums, there’s just no going back.
For a complimentary crash course in the history and making of modern rum, look no further than John Watling’s Distillery in a 1789 Buena Vista Estate in downtown Nassau. Here, I learned that the first rum distillation took place in the 1600s when it was discovered that molasses, a by-product of refined sugar cane, could be fermented into alcohol. As distillation techniques became more sophisticated, the alcohol had fewer impurities and the quality of the rum improved. Sailors introduced the drink to Colonial America, and rum production has fundamentally shaped the course of island commerce ever since.
It’s a rollicking good story, which only gets more entertaining after tasting a caramel-coloured flight of Watling’s pale, amber and single-barrel offerings. I decide to take home a barrel-aged bottle of the smooth walnut-and-vanilla-flavoured Amber, as it’s not available outside the country.
Tour Versailles-Inspired Gardens
All this imbibing is tempered with a long walk through Ocean Club’s Versailles Gardens, which span the entire width of the island with stone steps that lead to a grand reconstructed 12th-century Augustinian cloister. Staff members insist the cloister offers the best sunset views over Nassau harbour, so I take them up on this promise.
Walking through the stately Hartford Courtyard and out to the gardens, I’m expecting more of the same: sea grapes, palm fronds and ocean air. What I find only adds to my enchantment: Louis XIV’s resplendent Sun King style has been transported to Paradise Island. The garden was the pet project of Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren, who came upon the island in 1939 and spent two decades building the estate. Wenner-Gren took great pains to ensure that the manicured hedges, tiered stone walls and whimsical marble statues reflected the grandeur of the French aristocracy. There’s a reason so many couples make their vows here – it makes you feel like royalty. You’re still better suited in sandals and flowy resort wear, however, than in gold hardware or tight corsets.
Get Gorgeous in a Spa Villa
Ocean Club has a long line of A-List guests, Bill Gates, Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier and Joan Collins among them. Hoping to up my own glam factor, I book a treatment in one of Ocean Club’s Balinese-style villas. These fully decked stand-alone abodes have a private stone-paved entryway, and in each one a hydrotherapy whirlpool bath and a cascading waterfall shower beg to be enjoyed.
The whole things feels undeservedly decadent, but I happily check in, ditch my phone (they aren’t allowed anyway), and wrap myself in a fluffy robe and slippers. One herbal tea later, I’m lying face down on a soft, pre-warmed table receiving a full body hot-stone massage, while also being doused in lightly perfumed Frangipani Monoi body oil. The effect is deep relaxation and release as my muscles let go of deadlines and jet lag–induced tension. After 90 minutes of this, I’m ready to don my fanciest chiffon halter dress and oversize earrings for dinner at Dune, the Resort’s fine dining establishment from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The lauded French chef isn’t present for my last night in the Bahamas, but I think he’d approve of my choices: Bahamian lobster bisque and a Sky Juice on the rocks.